Tuesday, October 30, 2012

At The Core Of Bringing Durham Back

Small businesses make up 99.7% of the US economy but more than half are home-based and only a quarter are employers.  Those that do employ others have generated 64% of all net new jobs since 1993 and 67% since the latest recession.

Many in that category are the local, independently-owned, non-franchise, non-chain restaurants that contribute so much to sense-of-place in communities rated as “foodie” such as Durham, NC, where I live.

As stated in an Indy article last week by Dr. Nathan Vandergrift, head of Duke Medicine’s Biostatistics and Bioinformatics Center and whose brother John is now a chef-owner and even founder of several Durham restaurants:

"…what's put Durham back on track is food…"

He definitely has a point but I believe it all began much further back, especially downtown, than he may have meant or knows, back before there was a Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau to fuel consumer demand and long before there was a Downtown Durham Inc. to nurture supply.

Many restaurants inhabit historic structures, some are there long enough to become historic landmarks themselves, but as described recently by Barry Newman in the Wall Street Journal, “Restaurants are show business. When one flops, you strike the set, build new scenery and hope for a hit.”

Restaurants are what Carlo Caccavale, an associate director for the American Institute of Architects in Los Angeles described to Newman as “disposable spaces,” so to see the impact of chef-driven restaurants on the resurrection of Durham, one has to go back at least 30 years.

Durham’s renaissance can be traced to when chefs such as Bakatsias (pronounced bah-kah-SHAH,) Bacon, Ferrell, Ball and Barker first planted the roots for what would become a colony of acclaimed Durham chefs and restaurants first in what was then Loehmann’s Plaza, then throughout the Ninth Street District and by the dawn of the 1980s in downtown’s Brightleaf District.

Early in the 1980s, this colony also planted the seeds for locally-sourced and organic cheeses, meats and vegetables and gourmet retail outlets such as Fowlers and the Ghirardelli Ravioli Factory in downtown Durham’s Brightleaf and City Center districts.

As the 1980s turned to 1990s the Durham colony had attracted, inspired and even mentored chefs such as Foster, Howell, Day and Royal who populated acclaimed restaurants in the Rockwood District and even more than 20 years ago along Main Street in downtown Durham’s City Center.

These chefs further inspired and mentored many of the other chefs about whom Dr. Vandergrift was probably referring such his brother John and partner Chris Stinnett, who grew up in Durham, and other natives, some returning, such as Cotter, Brooks and Tornquist as well as some who emerged earlier in the 2000s such as Kelly, Hanna and many more.

Restaurants are disproportionately represented among the 10-12% of small businesses with employees that open and close within a year or the half that survive less than five years.  It is not without irony that alternatives such as “pop-up” restaurants and food trucks have evolved.

Small businesses generate 16 times more patents per employee than larger enterprises and this would be even higher if it was realistic for chefs to patent innovations.  Instead, chefs are more likely to share innovations, spawn new ideas and colonize.

Food trucks are an example.  Spotting football players in a training camp in Texas eating burgers from a truck, Tom Ferguson ran the idea of a Durham food truck by fellow-chef Sam Posey.

Both had trained under the original colony of Durham chefs and Poley had owned a restaurant which featured a different burger every month among the nouveau items on his menu in between stints with the Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Within two weeks in the fall of 2008, the first dedicated food truck in all of North Carolina was spawned in Durham – aptly named “Only Burger” and now wholly-owned by one of the partners, Brian Bottger, whose roots also trace back to that original colony of chefs.

This community rapidly became a haven for food trucks and an inspiration for many other communities.  Many in Durham have not only served as incubators and test kitchens and Twitter-followed pop-ups but ultimately as inspiration for many stand-alone restaurants.

Now they have inspired another Durham native and historic preservationist Nick Hawthorne-Johnson and his partner, Rochelle Johnson, a graphic designer to innovate The Cookery by renovating a brick warehouse located on the western fringe of downtown Durham that had been the home of the Durham Food Co-op since the 1970s.

The team carefully restored the building, milling floors from tobacco warehouses here into the bar top and creating ironwork railings and accents from materials taken from the old Heart of Durham Hotel and Liggett and Meyers tobacco factory.

The facility serves as a state-of-the-art culinary incubator for commercial food production, for culinary workshops and for events and true pop-up restaurants for visiting chefs or those wanting to test market concepts.

Dr. Vandergrift may have put his finger on the type of businesses that have ignited the renaissance of not only Durham but the groundwork for a reignited downtown.

Following demographic and consumer trends, downtowns nationwide are undergoing rapid revitalization, but two things are responsible for the fact that Durham’s has also retained its unique-sense-of-place: historic preservation and place-based small businesses led by restaurants, breweries and food-related retail.

Whatever success we bask in today, is due to pioneers in each of these arenas, and a credit those who laid the groundwork for each of these types of food-related businesses over the last 25 to 30 years, even downtown, even in the city center.

This has also taken decades of reinvestment in “the commons” by local government, something upon which even global corporations are now realizing they depend and in which they should also invest.

A smorgasbord of local chef/owner driven independent businesses is also at the core of Durham emergence, two decades ago, as a center for knowledge-based workers so in demand by global concerns and start-ups alike and often classified as the creative class.

Success is never easy and it never comes overnight and it is always oh, so fragile especially for food-related businesses which are demand-driven and extremely sensitive to supply, unlike other types of development including office-related, so they depend as much on a steady stream of visitors as they do residents.

Just ask the chef/owners of Durham’s small, independent restaurants and the next time you frequent one, be sure to say, “thanks for helping to bring Durham, including downtown, back to what it is today.”

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